As you probably know, Burundi has been going through some tough times of late. Earthquakes in Taiwan and certainly in Nepal, all the various conflicts, etc. have certainly and deservedly grabbed headlines. But this small, land-locked country (roughly the same size as Massachusetts) has somehow garnered some attention during the current crisis.
I haven’t said much about it here, mostly because the situation is creating an overwhelming amount of workload and I don't have much free time. And because I oversee our programs in Rwanda, the destination of close to 30,000 refugees who have fled Burundi, there has been discussion of adding to our programming there. Nonetheless, the bulk of my time has been focused on Bujumbura. For now this has been the heart of the demonstrations which have been ongoing since April 26th. I will refrain from going into detail about the politics since you can read that online. My focus here will be the impact the situation is having on us on a day to day basis.
Challenges to understanding
Prior to the announcement that the president would stand for a 3rd term, there were several weeks of reports of ruling party youth wing harassing and threatening people in the interior of the country who were openly not supportive of the anticipated decision. Several thousand refugees had fled the country even before the communication on the 25th. In addition to the fears generated by the youth wing, one needs to keep in mind the twelve-year civil war and years and years of violence that add to the “baggage” that much of this country is carrying around. It’s hard for an outsider to understand. I’ve been working with Burundians for nearly a decade (in Tanzania and Burundi) and I don’t claim to understand the complexities of this context. I likely understand it better than most outsiders but I feel like the knowledge that I have is the very thing that makes me appreciate how much I don’t know.
My lack of Kirundi is part of the problem. It’s a rich language and language, in and of itself, reveals much about a culture. At work we speak French and though many non-francophone outsiders feel that venturing into French is tapping into the local language, it’s obviously not. As is the case for most former French/Belgian colonies, French is a work language here. For a proper lens into the identity of the people, you need to go through Kirundi.
Another practical benefit would simply be the ability to listen to the radio. Very little of it is in French. With chaos happening around you, it’s frustrating not to be able to tap into the primary source of information for the country. Though we have been able to gather some things via social media, it also is just one lens. And it tends to be limited to the educated.
As it happened
The announcement came on a Saturday. We’d been informed that it was coming so staff were in hibernation for the weekend (we have hibernation rules that require us to maintain stocks of food for around seven days, batteries, water, etc. and movement is forbidden unless it is absolutely necessary). So we didn’t go to the pool with the girls as we normally do on Saturday morning. But the day ended up being calm and it appeared that the protests were going to start the following day. So I took advantage of the time to hang out with my family and do a bit of work, all the while anxious of what was inevitably awaiting us.
Sure enough, on Sunday morning things began to unravel. I woke up early and made coffee as I normally do. It was still and quite in the early twilight. As I looked out the window at the mountains of the Congo, I begain to hear gunfire echoing off in the distance. It was soon interspersed with occasional explosions, which we later found out were a mix of grenades and tear gas bombs. It carried on throughout the morning, getting louder and closer at times, and coming from different directions.
At one point I was walking out of the house with my VHF radio in one hand and my cell phone in the other gathering information as to what was going on and where. Amidst the popping of gunfire and the occasional blast in the distance, my girls were playing in the yard. “Daddy, daddy, look at me.” It was a weird, almost surreal, moment and I started wondering if my family shouldn’t be getting on an airplane ASAP. The closest unrest came was only about two or three blocks from our house.
By afternoon, however, things had calmed down and I was more optimistic that I would be able to get to my office the next day. Monday morning woke up early as I normally do and left the house around 6:45. The city was calmer than normal and there was no evidence that anything had happened the day before. Upon arrival at the office compound I started to see evidence that things were different. Fewer staff were around and by 9:00, when we normally have our senior staff meeting, it was clear that a large percentage of staff would not be coming. I chatted with my security team and in certain neighborhoods the protests were well underway again. It was the beginning of a pattern that is still going on two and a half weeks into the movement.
Where are we now
Demonstrations have generally been starting very early in the morning. Staff who live in these areas are often prevented from leaving their neighborhoods either because of roadblocks or pressure from protesters to refrain from going to work and join the demonstrations. Attendance in Bujumbura office has been erratic. Though we likely have a few that are taking advantage of the situation and staying home even if things are calm where they live, most seem to want to come to work. Going to the office seems to provide people with a sense of normality.
Though our activities are moving forward more or less normally in the interior of the country, staff are fearful. To date none have joined the 60,000 or so who have fled Burundi but many have sent their families away. Most are watching the unfolding of events in Bujumbura very closely. If things were to spiral further out of control there would be ramifications throughout the country. Also, many, if not most, of our staff are either from Bujumbura or have family there. Some are in the uncomfortable situation of working in the refugee camps or on other activities and knowing that their spouse and children are residing in the capital four hours away – in the neighborhoods where the violence is taking place.
Where we are going
No one knows where this is headed. Yet it doesn’t stop people from talking about it all the time. It’s hard to have conversations about anything else. The country is obsessed with the topic since it impacts everything. In addition to personal safety and security, it’s impacting access to goods and services. Some foods are either unavailable or you have to look all over to find them. Fuel is in short supply – many stations have closed. The main university has been shut down. Many boarding schools around the country have been closed. Some of the international schools have been closed until at least September. Inflation is increasing. Access to public transportation is limited.
The standoff doesn’t seem to afford too much room for compromise. As I sit here in my office, I can hear the sound of people yelling and some whistling. Sounds like a large crowd coming up the road outside our compound. Good guys? Bad guys? Which is which? Unfortunately, there are no black hats and white hats. There’s a tendency for outsiders and media to oversimplify what is a complex situation. And complex problems require complex solutions. Regardless of how this comes out, I think we have a long road ahead of us.
"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."
-Fred Rogers, television host, songwriter, and author (1928-2003)